If the former USSR had not broken up, it would have won 171 medals in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, more than any other country. The USSR, or more formally the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, was, at its height, the largest nation-state in the world. It included modern-day Russia as well as most of the countries known today as the “Eastern Bloc.” It was formed in 1922 but dissolved in 1991, leading to a breakdown and disintegration that in many ways is still ongoing. A total of 15 independent countries that were once part of the USSR participated in the 2008 Olympic games. With the exception of Russia, which placed third in the overall medal tally, none of these countries performed exceptionally well. When their results are pooled and combined, however, they dominate the competition. Of course, this domination is relative; it is difficult to know if the numbers would have been the same had dissolution not occurred. Many factors, including training, national loyalty, and overall motivation, play into medal wins. As such, the numbers presented in the tables that follow are interesting as a point of trivia, but can’t realistically be relied upon to make predictions about the past or to speculate on what could have been. Answering the question of how many medals did the countries of the former USSR win in the 2008 Olympics necessarily requires a bit of hypothetical thinking and realistic speculation.
Understanding USSR Dissolution
The USSR collapsed in the early 1990s, and what was once a powerful country shattered into a number of independent republics. The dissolution was not a clean one, and many of the new countries were plagued by civil war and unrest as leaders tried to find common ground and establish leadership away from the Kremlin, the premier Russian leadership that had held the Soviet Union together. The borders of many of these countries shifted substantially in the years after dissolution, but are usually recognized as 15 independent republics. Alphabetically, these are Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan.
Reconstructing a Soviet Union Count
The following chart shows the number of medals won in 2008 by the countries that were once a part of the Soviet Union.
Medal Breakdown Generally
In the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, the United States won the overall medal count with 110 total medals. China, however, won significantly more gold medals; 51 versus 36 for the U.S. Russia came in a distant third with 72 total medals.
2008 Beijing Olympic Medals
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Important Considerations and Margin of Error
It’s important to realize that the numbers presented here are presented under artificial circumstances. It is impossible to know whether the count would have been this high — or even higher — had the USSR not dissolved.
A lot of varying factors play into medal wins. Perhaps some athletes would be less or more motivated to compete for the Soviet Union and their results would have been different. Furthermore, the number of participants per Olympic event from a single country is limited. In some instances a medalist from Moldova, for example, might not even have participated in the Olympics because a Belorussian athlete may have qualified ahead of her.
Also, funding for the athletes by their respective Olympic Committees would certainly have been different, perhaps more or less, and this would likely have had a big impact on the results.
Although it has plenty to do with dedication and talent, the competition to win the most medals is also heavily affected by possibly arbitrary political boundaries. For instance, if the United States split up into two countries in the Civil War, then certainly the two constituents would win fewer medals alone.
Republics That Themselves Later Dissolved
As has been noted, the USSR’s dissolution was not a clean one. Two of the original new republics, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, themselves later also dissolved into a number of different and independent countries. The following charts show what those countries’ medal tallies would have looked like had they stayed together.
2008 Olympic Medals from Countries in Former Yugoslavia
The former Yugoslavia split into eight different countries (seven if you exclude Kosovo). Only three of the former Yugoslav countries received medals but together, they would have been one of the top 20 countries in terms of total medals won.
2008 Olympic Medals from Countries in Former Czechoslovakia
The former Czechoslovakia dissolved into the Czech Republic and Slovakia on 1 January 1993. Together, they would have won a total of 12 medals which would have moved them into the top 20 countries in the world.